Video: Dog Catchers
By Dave Flessner and Herman Wang
In the view of Chattanooga city officials, the Humane Educational Society facilities in Highland Park are too old, small and fractured to continue to house the thousands of animals captured each year by animal control officers.
"Rather than rely upon an outdated animal pound without enough room, we're going to build a modern new shelter," said Councilman Jack Benson, chairman of the city's Legal and Legislative Committee. "I really believe our new facility could be to animal services what our revitalized riverfront has been for our visitors."
But leaders of the local Humane Society, which has provided city animal services for most of the past century, see a much different picture.
As he walks through the humane society's 76-year-old shelter, Guy Bilyeu points to recent and planned upgrades. Buoyed by more than $100,000 of recent donations for building improvements, the humane society is drawing up plans for a new public entrance, educational classroom and dog adoption rooms as part of a $250,000 expansion.
"This building is structurally very sound and we're committed to continuing to improve our services here," Mr. Bilyeu said.
The new year is bringing some of the biggest changes ever undertaken in Chattanooga in the way the city handles its animal services. After nearly a decade of studies and debate over sheltering animals, 2007 is expected to bring a new $5.6 million animal shelter in Hixson operated by a public-private partnership group that also will take over animal control enforcement. At the same time, improvements are being planned at the Humane Society's existing shelter on Highland Park Avenue, which will continue to service most of Hamilton County outside of Chattanooga and East Ridge.
The changes are helping bring more money and attention to animal shelters. But they also are creating divisions among animal supporters and among local governments in Hamilton County.
Splitting up services
The Humane Educational Society has provided most animal services in Hamilton County since its Highland Park shelter was erected in 1940. But study panels under both former mayors Jon Kinsey and Bob Corker recommended the city build its own shelter and take greater control of animal services.
As a City Council member and now mayor, Ron Littlefield pushed for a new shelter to replace what he said was the Humane Society's "old and confined" facility that he said could not be brought up to today's building and animal care standards. Mr. Benson said the city also needs to break the Humane Society's "monopoly," which he said "held us captive" to a program that was not providing adequate care.
But Humane Society leaders insist they have made significant improvements over the past five years since media reports showed animals often crowded into small cages in the Highland Park facility. In the 1990s, nearly all dogs and cats were euthanized if they were not adopted in 10 days, records show. Last year, 57.8 percent of the animals brought to the Humane Society were euthanized and many animals are kept at the shelter for months, Mr. Bilyeu said.
Dr. Tai Federico, a local veterinarian and president of the local Humane Educational Society, said the Humane Society has made "dramatic improvements."
"It just doesn't make sense at this point to go out and spend all this money on a brand new shelter," he said. "Just because your house needs new carpet and furniture, you don't go out and buy a whole new house."
The new "house" will be built by the Animal Care Trust, a nonprofit group Mr. Corker created in 2004 to help raise money and develop plans for the new facility. Animal Control Trust members said their plans were developed after studying animal services in the region and reviewing previous studies recommending that a new shelter be built.
The city agreed to provide $2 million and a 10-acre site on former DuPont property along Access Road in Hixson for the new shelter. The private fundraising campaign received a boost from a $1 million contribution from the family of Capital Toyota dealer Robert McKamey for whom the new shelter will be named.
Organizers of the McKamey Animal Care and Adoption Center said it will have more space, better facilities and more public support than the aging humane society complex.
chattanooga goes it alone
But appeals to other municipalities and county government for support of the new facility proved unsuccessful.
Former East Ridge Mayor and now state House Rep. Vince Dean said the Animal Control Trust invited the city to be a partner in its new shelter, but the dollar commitment to help with construction "was out of our price range at the time."
The East Ridge City Council ultimately decided in 2005 to reopen its shelter, which had been shuttered as a cost-savings measure in 2001. The shelter near Parkridge East operates on a yearly budget of about $200,000.
While the shelter was closed, the city contracted with the Humane Educational Society for animal services.
"There were a few instances (with the Humane Society), nothing major, where there was a delay in getting someone to respond," Rep. Dean said. "Being locally based, we felt like we could provide our citizens with faster and better service."
Red Bank Commissioner Pat Brown, who was mayor in 2003 when the Animal Care Trust was formed, said there had been discussions with the trust to partner in the new shelter, but no dollar figures were ever given.
"They would never be specific. They wanted us to open our purse and let them get a certain amount out, but they never said how much," Mr. Brown said. "We would not commit without knowing what we would get."
The city of Red Bank currently pays the Humane Educational Society $44,000 a year, Mr. Bilyeu said.
Collegedale Mayor John Taylor said he does not recall being asked by the Animal Care Trust to be a partner in the new animal shelter. The city currently uses the Humane Educational Society for its animal services, although the city could be open to a change if a new shelter could save Collegedale money.
"If we got better service through the Animal Care Trust than we were getting through the Humane Educational Society for the same or less money, we'd obviously entertain that," he said.
Barby Wilson, the chairwoman of the Animal Control Trust, said her group will not try to actively solicit other municipalities to use the new shelter. But the 23,000-square-foot facility will be designed to be expanded if other cities decide later to begin using the shelter for their animal services.
"We expect the new shelter will bring a higher standard of animal care to Chattanooga," she said.
shelters in the storm
Construction of the McKamey Shelter is expected to begin this month and, if no problems develop, could be completed by October, according to city officials.
Dr. Amanda Wojtalik, a Chattanooga native and veterinarian, was hired in September as the $90,000-a-year executive director of the Animal Control Trust to direct the shelter and, later this year, direct the city's animal control enforcement staff. She will also work to help reduce Hamilton County's animal population by promoting more spay and neutering of dogs and cats. Within the new shelter, a surgical suite will help ensure more animals are neutered and provide better care for injured and sick animals brought to the shelter, Mrs. Wilson said.
So far, $2,069,000 has been pledged from private donors, in addition to the city of Chattanooga's $2 million commitment to the facility, Dr. Wojtalik said.
"Our fundraising is going very well, and we are ready to begin construction," she said.
Across town, the Humane Educational Society shelter also is getting a new look. In 2005, the city of Chattanooga accounted for about two-thirds of the 11,503 animals brought to the Humane Society shelter and the city provided about 40 percent of the Humane Society's local budget.
But even after the city switches its animal services to its own shelter late this year, Mr. Bilyeu said the Humane Society shelter still will handle probably ore than 4,000 animals a year and the society will continue its educational and outreach programs.
Dr. Federico doubts that other municipalities will join with Chattanooga.
"We provide our services at just over half the average cost per animal of most other cities," he said. "I don't see any way the new shelter can be anything but more expensive."
To help improve the public appeal of the Humane Society complex in Highland Park, Mr. Bilyeu said the organization is preparing a $250,000 upgrade of the facility.
Since he joined the local Humane Society three years ago, Mr. Bilyeu said the society has spent about $25,000 a year and used donated materials to replace asphalt floors, install new isolation rooms for animals and add outside caged areas.
"We made a lot of the structural improvements we needed for the caring of the animals and now we're going to do more of the pretty stuff that should help us adopt out more animals," he said.
Mr. Bilyeu said the facility "is built like Fort Knox" and can be expanded to improve both how animals are brought in and how the public is able to see animals for adoption.
Mr. Benson acknowledged that improvements are being made. But he said a new shelter will help attract more people to adopt animals that the city captures and help bring more students and members of the public to the facility to learn about ways to care for and control animal populations.
"Chattanooga is simply catching up to what the other major cities in Tennessee have already done," he said.
City leaders point out that in 2001, Knoxville and Knox County built a modern new shelter, the Young-Williams Animal Shelter, to replace the aging Humane Society complex in Knoxville.
But Humane Society officials contend that change was not much of an improvement. Both the number of animals captured and the kill rate for animals have increased since the new center opened.
In 2000, the last year in which the Humane Society in Knoxville handled animal services, 60.3 percent of the 13,423 animals brought to the shelter were euthanized. In 2005, the most recent year for which complete figures are available for the Young-Williams center, 71.3 percent of the 16,195 animals brought to the shelter were euthanized.
"People point to Knoxville as an example, but a bigger share of animals are now killed in Knoxville than when the humane society handled animal services," Dr. Federico said.
Mrs. Wilson said the changes in how the city handles animal control were bound to create some controversies.
The friction was probably inevitable," she said. "But I hope we've grown beyond that. This is a fabulous opportunity for the city to have a first-rate shelter of its own and its a great chance for the humane society to get out from under this terrible burden."
Mr. Bilyeu also says he has resolved himself to the new shelter being built and believes the changes should help animal care and control in Chattanooga.
"If the McKamey Center opens, and we are able to raise more money to improve our facility and programs, it all should be very good for animals and that's all I care about," he said.